Reuben Mitchell: a tribute

Reuben Mitchell in rehearsal

Reuben Mitchell in rehearsal

This is a repost of an excerpt from a blog post I originally published last year on November 17th, days after Reuben Mitchell was killed. I was in rehearsal for the Arden Theater production of Cinderella. I offer it today on the anniversary of his death. We all still miss him.

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Reuben Mitchell was an actor that had taken our theater community by storm in a little over two years. I had seen him in Theater Exile’s production of A Behanding in Spokane and he made me laugh until my face ached. He was well known through his work with 1812 Productions, and their annual show This is The Week That Was, an SNL-type variety show using the events of the week in our nation, to create a continually changing show. Reuben did a spot-on Obama imitation. Last summer, I cast him as Malcolm X in a reading of a new play presented at White Pines, Rustin and The March. He was extraordinary in that role and shared with me the honor he felt it was to portray a man he regarded as heroic. He was to have played Malcolm again [ in a reading last year ], but for the fact that he was tragically killed in a motorcycle accident.

Tuesday morning, we sat in the rehearsal room and cried. That is not an exaggeration. Whit and Matt Decker of the Arden showed grace in allowing for some time for us just to grieve. Then, we soldiered on, getting through a day of rehearsal punctuated by tears, and feeling, for me at least, quite out-of-body. That evening, many of us gathered in the offices of 1812 Productions in a spontaneous gathering for Reuben. We staggered in, tear stained and exhausted, and held each other. Then, we wobbled off to one corner or the other of the room and stared at each other with mute vulnerability. Each new arrival was a chance to do something, to hold someone, to give shape and substance to our grief. I stayed for about an hour, long enough to hear James Ijames’ breathtaking and spontaneous eulogy delivered from atop a folding chair and accompanied by the sobs of friends. The room was packed with several “layers” of our theater community, from young people I barely know, to old timers like me, Whit, Jen Childs of 1812 and Joe Canuso of Theater Exile. It could have been a maudlin show of self-indulgent, over-dramatics. It could have been an awkward collision of fake smiles and strained relations. God knows the theater breeds enough of all of that. But it wasn’t. It was a room full of devastated friends who had lost a beloved; a beloved reaching the height of his powers, possessed of astonishing creative potential, and the near-miraculous ability to make anyone, anyone, smile.

Today [Nov. 17th 2012] was Reuben’s memorial service at a church in Germantown. I sat in worship in the viewing room, remembering another open casket a year and a half ago, for another Philadelphia rising star, also recently in a White Pines reading, also cut down in a vehicle, and loved and grieved with every bit as much fervor. Twice in two years, two dazzling young actors suddenly dead. And as did Melissa, Reuben has given us such an awesome gift: a great mirror, in which we see each other and ourselves, brave, wounded and so in love. And as with Melissa, I did not approach the body in the casket as others did, having no sense of its specialness; or rather, the sense that it was only special in that it was the now-empty vessel which had once carried within it the sweet, beautiful spirt named Reuben. Across the social media bandwidth this week, it has been proclaimed: we are shattered by this loss, we love our adopted brother Reuben, and we are an astonishing community of artists.

I began crying today when Reuben’s brother stood up to speak to us: a handsome United States Marine in full dress blues. He said, Reuben is my brother and I love him so much, and – as he gazed out over the pews full of multicultural faces, our faces, he said – and he is your brother too.

In our house, we like to say to our kids, we’re so glad you chose us. It’s a cute way of referencing a deeper mystery we believe in: that Griffen and Ella may have something of the eternal about them, and for this go round, they chose me and Susan to grow up with. Reuben and I chose Philadelphia, and, though I never talked to him about it, I think we chose it for the same reason. We each sensed the loving community here among the theater artists, which are a group historically more prone to itinerant lifestyles and factioning. And community is simply a larger and looser family. Sure feels like family, after the week I have spent in rehearsal with my beautiful colleagues, and after the fierce love I have felt directly at me from others in this community, a love which says, “dammit, you stay safe. We need you. We need all of us.”